Day 25: Mile 143.6 | Sassafras Gap Shelter
I woke up still exhausted. I was battling a cold that I think I caught in Franklin. Stuffed up and achey I rolled out of bed at 9am (so late for me) and started packing. After we packed, Whisperer and I had a talk. We agreed that it felt like we weren't on the same page anymore and I told him that I felt like I wasn't hiking my own hike. He was faster than me and I didn't want to hold him back. We agreed to part ways that morning.
Alone, really for the first time, I started walking. I didn't know how to feel. I was overwhelmed and exhausted. I hiked two intense miles out of the NOC and began to cry. I sat down on the edge of the trail. Let the mental breakdown ensue... the tears started flowing and the ugly cry (<- edit I'm leaving this term here because I used it when I originally wrote it but I no longer believe that this is a term anyone should use. Cry when you need to. Who gives a shit if you look 'ugly'?) was real. I felt crazy. I admitted to myself for the first time that I had no fucking clue what I was doing. I knew only where I was going to camp that night. I suddenly felt like I had to finally figure out who I wanted to be and what I wanted to be. I was overwhelmed with loneliness and freedom all at once. With the Smokies coming up, I was feeling incapable and nervous. The Smokies are a big deal! 71 miles at high elevation including the highest point on the AT.
After a call home and a good 45 minute cry I got up. I put my pack on grabbed my poles and started walking. As I gained elevation the air started to chill. I had started in pants and a fleece. I quickly had to put on my rain jacket to keep in some warmth. I was having a hard time focusing on hiking. I felt like I wasn't making any miles. I plugged my headphones in and put on an episode of the Moth that I had downloaded. I listened and plowed ahead. Some funny stories from my favorite podcast really made me feel better and distracted me from my woes and my Achilles pain.
By the time I arrived at camp that afternoon it was only 3pm. There was plenty of room in the shelter. Which Way and Next Step, a very nice couple, were already there and offered for me to set up my bed next to them in the shelter. Alone and annoyed with my tent, I obliged. I went and got water. My hands got wet and were FREEZING. I quickly put on gloves and filtered some water into my pot to cook dinner. I left my filter on my bladder and continued setting up camp. It was fucking cold. 15 degrees and dropping.
About 15 minutes later my dinner was done. I screwed my filter onto my water bottle and started squeezing. Nothing came out. My filter had frozen in 15 minutes on the table next to my hot stove. It was cold. [For the laymen/laywomen: when a fiber filter (e.g. a Sawyer Squeeze or a Platypus Gravityworks) it will no longer filter properly]. I felt like I was alone and I was nervous to ask for help. Usually I would just look to my partner (Dragon or Whisperer or Michelin) and ask to borrow theirs until I could get a new one in the next 'town' but there I was without a partner for the first time. I stepped out of the shelter with my freshly cooked ramen and called my mom again (thank God for parents, right?). She talked me down and ordered me a new filter through Amazon from her computer at home.
A few more hikers started to trickle in. After I ate my dinner I looked around and spoke up. "Anyone have a Sawyer I could borrow?" Five hands shot out with filters in plastic baggies, ready to help. I am quickly learning that the trail always provides. Soon Liam, the hiker who let me borrow his filter, and Next Step started a small fire in the fire pit. We all huddled around and blew on it to keep it going. Eventually it was too cold to stay out and we all went to the shelter to get into our sleeping bags.
I got into my quilt on my new(ish) sleeping pad with my new bag liner and tried to go to sleep. I couldn't. I was FREEZING. my body was cold where it touched the pad. The bag liner felt like a freaking jersey t-shirt. So much for the 'added 14 degrees.' Sure, I may not have been eating enough. Yeah, I had lost a lot of fat since I left. But there is no way I should have been that cold with that set up. I was constantly shivering. I got up and went pee even though I didn't really need to go, thinking it'd help me get warm. I pulled up Guthook and found out that the next gap, 7 miles ahead, had a very well reviewed hostel. Worried about being cold and seeing the low low price and free shuttling that came along with my stay, I called Lonnie at Stecoah Wolf Creek Hostel and asked if he had any beds. He told me to call him when I got to the gap the next day and he'd pick me up. After, I called my friend at home and he told me to get the trash bag I used to line my pack and get in it inside my sleeping bag. It would insulate me but make me sweat. After I talked to him I saw a text come through from Michelin. I called him. He offered to send me his 0 degree synthetic sleeping bag to borrow through the smokies so that I didn't have to worry about being cold. I paid the shipping and he sent it to Fontana.
I got in my bag liner, put my legs into the trash bag, and got into my quilt. I was still chilled but warm enough that I knew I wasn't going to get hypothermia or anything. Knowing I wouldn't be able to sleep and that I really NEEDED to sleep I took a Seroquel (my sleeping pill) and went to sleep.
Day 27: Mile 163.5 | Stecoah Wolf Creek Hostel (a.k.a. Lonnie's place)
I woke up late and didn't leave camp until 9:00am. Groggy, I got up and packed quickly. The trash bag I had slept in made my sleeping bag wet. It seemed like everything made my sleeping bag wet. Which Way and Next Step left before me and wished me luck. It was a cold morning and I started out slow. I went over Cheoah Bald accompanied by Liam. Which Way, Next Step, and Tangerine ahead of us.
I was out at Stecoah Gap by 11:30am to be picked up by Lonnie, the hostel owner. I waited for him with Tangerine at the picnic area at the gap. Lonnie showed up in his black truck to pick me up. He told me about the Smokies, which were in my very near future, and pointed out Clingman's Dome (highest point on the AT) in the distance. We pulled up to a diner and went around the back to a trailer. He explained he has this double wide trailer and his former childhood home that was up the street a little ways that he rents to hikers. We went inside and he showed me around. For the first night the beds were all taken so I slept on the fold out couch. The other two women that were staying there were out slackpacking so I had the trailer to myself for a bit. It was very clean and I had my choice of two bathrooms to shower in. There was even washing machines that Lonnie lets hikers use for free.
I showered, did my laundry, and emptied out my food bag. I went out front to the diner and got a burger with onion rings for lunch. The waitress even got me a big glass of chocolate milk (after giggling when I ordered it. Apparently it's on the kids menu...). I looked at the guidebook and planned out what I wanted to hike through the Smokies. After finally looking at the guidebook, I felt more ready and capable for the Smokies. What had seemed so daunting and intimidating now seemed possible! After lunch I went back to the hostel, set up on the couch and blogged for a bit while watching TV.
Soon, the other hikers came back. We all went out to Ingles and the Liquor Store with Lonnie in his 'Stinkin' Lincoln' (his affectionate name for his Lincoln Town Car). The windy mountain roads to Robbinsville made it feel like he was driving so fast. I was so used to going 2mph all the time on my feet that it seemed like he was going so fast! At the grocery store I got a few things to supplement the resupply that I had coming to Fontana (a day ahead) and a six pack of Lazy Hiker.
After much deliberation, back at the hostel that night I arranged with Lonnie to take me back to Stecoah Gap in the morning so that I could slackpack to Fontana. I was nervous about money and how many days it had taken me to get this far. I went to bed early and slept very little.
Day 27: Mile 165.5 | Stecoah Wolf Creek Hostel
I got up at 6:30am and all of us got ready to go. Because the other hikers were going back to the trail, I got to move to a bed in my own room! We headed out to the truck and I got dropped off at Stecoah Gap. Forgetting that sunrise was later due to Daylight Saving Time, I started out in the dark. It was a chilly day but the forecast looked good.
I started walking up the steep slope out of the gap. The sun began to rise slowly and I put on an episode of the Moth again. This one was a tribute to Bokara Legendre, an incredible woman who grew up in what seems like a whole other America. Listen to it if you get the chance!
I walked fast that day. Without 40lbs on my back I was cruising at a good 3-3.5mph. I conquered Jacob's Ladder quickly and started shedding my long sleeve layers. The sun rose beautifully. I spent the day thinking about the Smokies, the trail, who I want to be and who I want to hike with in the future, and really learning to be at peace with myself. I thought about how I could Hike My Own Hike for real now.
In the afternoon I got some good service on a ridge and received a text from Dragon. She finally found out why her ankles were hurting so badly. We chatted for a good 45 minutes about what we've missed in each other's hikes over the last couple of weeks and her plans for the future of her hike.
I kept hiking and made it to Fontana Dam around 1:30pm. I got a shuttle from the Fontana 'Hilton' (the nicest shelter on the AT complete with a shower, filtered water, and power outlet) up to the post office to get my new tent! After the post office I called Lonnie. He was on his way to pick someone up but he could be in Fontana around 4 to pick someone else up as well.
I didn't mind waiting so I went to the lodge (Fontana Dam is essentially a very small resort town with a general store, post office, and lodge that has a restaurant) to get lunch. When I arrived there were a few other hikers there that let me join them! I met Jackelope, Megan, Ripple, and someone who had thru-hiked last year. We ate lunch and talked about our plans for the Smokies. Apparently there was a severe storm warning out for the next week out there. But the Hiker from last year said there is almost always a severe storm warning out during this time of year for the Smokes. We'd be fine, he said.
Lonnie showed up right on time after lunch and helped me carry all of my packages to the car:
The packages were a little excessive... but what did I know? When we got back to the hostel I went outside and Lonnie set me up in the back yard with a beer to try out my new tent. I'd never used a tarp tent before but it only took me about 15 minutes to figure out how to get it up the first time. I watched a few videos of how to set it up well for the rain. Lonnie's adorable cat helped me out a bit:
After setting up my tent I got in touch with my counselor. I told her about my mental breakdowns and the random panic attacks I was having. We talked through my plan for the next couple of weeks mentally. And I told her everything that had happened since we last spoke. It always seems like it's been months since our last session even though it was really just a week. We decided it'd be best for me to stay at the hostel for the next couple of nights until I would be able to get that sleeping bag from the post office.
That night I talked to Michelin. He finally got a verdict from his doctor. The doctor gave him the option of trying cortisone injections instead of surgery so that he could continue his hike. He was considering taking that route.
Around 8pm Donna showed up at the hostel. She was renting the other room in the trailer. Donna used to own the Cabin in the Woods hostel and was just back in town to visit and pick up some stuff from her storage unit. She was friends with Lonnie. We talked for a few hours about her old hostel and the crazy incidents that happened with hikers in her day. Including the time she accidentally helped a fugitive! It was an interesting night.
Day 28: Mile 165.5 | Stecoah Wolf Creek Hostel
I slept in until 8:30am. Donna had to go to Ingles in Robbinsville and offered to take me along. I went with her and got a rotisserie chicken, veggies, garlic bread, and apple fritters to mow down on during my zero day. Donna got me a bottle of wine, she was so sweet!
We headed back to the hostel. When we got back she had to go out to her storage unit so I was left alone at the trailer all day. I happily sat in the giant bean bag chair in the living room and mindlessly watched TV while eating all of my food. Later that evening Lonnie stopped by with some meatloaf and mashed potatoes that his wife had made for me. Him and Donna really spoiled me!
I went to bed early and finally slept well that night in my very own room at the hostel.
Day 29: Mile 165.5 | Stecoah Wolf Creek Hostel
Another zero day. I slept in until 9. Donna left early that morning. Lonnie stopped by to see if I needed anything. He said he didn't have anyone staying in the trailer that night but me so I had the whole place to myself! He left me to hang out alone but offered to take me up to the other hostel building where there were some other hikers hanging out but I decided I needed a lazy day alone.
I sat around and ate the rest of my food. I packed up my gear and my food bag. Organized the things I needed to send home. Cleaned my sleeping pads. Watched TV. Drank the rest of my beer. Blogged. I went to bed early, knowing I was leaving the next day.